Thursday, January 31, 2008

York Dispatch: Real ID "intrusive -- and obnoxious"

Yesterday the York Dispatch became the latest Pennsylvania newspaper to editorialize against the Real ID Act.
...possibly the most intrusive federal mandate ever...

The national ID initiative as it exists codifies a mob reaction to terror -- "security is all" -- reminiscent of that used by dictatorial and other repressive regimes for political and population control since the mid 19th century.

It has no place in a nation where the ideals of expanding individual freedom are held to be paramount. The battle has to be joined in Washington to repeal this curb on our liberties.

It is a fight none of us can afford to lose.

The Dispatch follows fast on the heels of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which made its statement on January 17.

Andy in Harrisburg


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

FISA update

A lot has happened this week with FISA, and while those of us at the ACLU of PA have been busy traveling back and forth across the country (for me, that meant from Harrisburg to Allentown this morning but for the rest of the staff, that meant to Los Angeles and back), we haven't had a chance to give the full update. Maybe you've been following it in your local fishwrap, but unfortunately, some papers have not been giving this issue the focus it deserves. Ah, what the hay, it's only a fundamental shift in government intrusion into our private lives that's at stake.

On Monday, the Senate Republicans made a motion to invoke cloture, i.e. end the debate. That motion failed and one Republican voted against- Senator Arlen Specter. In one breath, I cheer Senator Specter, and in the next, I scold him (which, frankly, is par for the course with ol' Arlen). Specter has proposed that the government be substituted as the defendant in civil cases against telecom companies for participating in the illegal surveillance, and in his floor speech on Monday, he stated that he would support telecom amnesty if his proposal fails.

Then yesterday Congress passed a 15-day extension of the Police America Act to allow Congress more time to finish the bill.

I've pimped Daily Kos a bit on this issue the last week or so, and deservedly so, but as usual, the best and most extensive writer on these Safe & Free issues is Glenn Greenwald of (rated "#1 Blogger" by the Official Andy-in-Harrisburg Blogger Scorecard). You can catch him on this issue here, here, and here.
With all the focus on the travesty of telecom amnesty, it has been easy to forget just how Draconian the Protect America Act really is, how radical are the warrantless eavesdropping powers it vested in the President. In essence, that bill allowed the Government to eavesdrop on every single international telephone call made or received by an American with no restrictions or judicial oversight whatsoever, and further empowered the Government to read every international email sent or received by an American with no restrictions or judicial oversight.

Senator Russ Feingold (rated "#1 Senator" by the Official Andy-in-Harrisburg Senatorial Scorecard) talked with a group of bloggers about how the Police America Act breaks down the wall of privacy for him and his daughter when she sends him an email from England.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Monday, January 28, 2008

The man with the tin ear

It doesn't take a PHD in political science to figure out why the Democrats have been kicked around by the Republicans all these years. On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reminded us why the Democrats are the Washington Generals to the Republicans' Harlem Globetrotters (not that you would ever catch a Republican in Harlem). In reference to the ongoing work on FISA and warrantless surveillance and the attempt to get a temporary extension of the Police America Act, a six month law passed in August, Reid said:
The president has to make a decision. He's either going to extend the law, or he will...which is temporary in nature, or there will be no wiretapping. (emphasis added)

*Sigh* What should we do with these people? If the Police America Act expires on Friday, there will be wiretapping. Under FISA, the NSA can conduct surveillance with warrants from the FISA court, a court that has been so friendly to the government since its creation that it's been called "a rubber stamp." If the surveillance is urgent, it can begin and the agency can go back to the court three days later for approval.

The only problem with FISA is a technical issue. Calls between foreign agents can be routed through the United States while neither party is actually in the U.S., a technical advancement that could not be foreseen in the 1970s. Very few people had any problem with fixing the law to allow warrantless surveillance of those types of calls. But the Bush thugs took advantage of that issue to push for more power, including warrantless surveillance of people in the U.S. and amnesty for telecommunications companies that conspired with the Bush crowd to break the law.

By saying "there will be no wiretapping," Tin Ear Harry- while trying to sound tough- has played right into the hands of those who would eviscerate our Constitution, specifically the Fourth Amendment. He's agreeing with their framing of the issue that without this law "there will be no wiretapping," which is factually incorrect.

It's only Monday, and I already have a headache.

Updated, 11:10am EST: Daily Kos has an update on the status of today's cloture vote.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Let Mom get happy!

A friend of mine is struggling with a tough choice. His mother, in her 80s, is dying. She has cancer and the tumors have reached her brain. She is deteriorating. Her concept of linear time has gone out the window. She thinks it's day when it's night. She'll put a pot on a hot stove and forget about it.

My friend's mother is a non-believer. She is sure no after-life awaits her. So she is scared. Terribly scared. The anti-anxiety medication she has been taking is no longer working. When he was visiting his mother recently, my friend went to her doctor and asked for, as he put it, "a happy pill" that would help her forget that soon, terribly soon, she will be leaving this world.

The doctor prescribed morphine, a really big bottle of it. But his mother has been asking for something else, a drug with fewer side effects, one that doesn't involve needles, one that will let her appreciate her remaining moments without sending her into a stupor. She's asked her son to score her some marijuana.

My friend lives in a state in the Northeast. His mother lives in one of those states in the Northwest that has taken the position that maybe if medical marijuana might help dying cancer patients, than who are we to judge and prosecute? And really, don't we have better things to worry about than suffering old ladies toking a little bit of pot? But even in such enlightened states, getting access to medical marijuana can be difficult.

And my friend is on this side of the country. And his mother is on the other. He will be returning west soon, but because of our draconian federal drug laws, delivering marijuana across state lines remains a pretty serious crime.

But his mother is scared. What does he do? What would you do?

The ACLU's position on the medical necessity defense for medical marijuana is this:
Medical marijuana is the only hope that some seriously ill patients have for relieving chronic pain, intractable nausea and the other side effects of chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and HIV/AIDS medications. Yet the Drug Enforcement Agency continues to prosecute sick people under federal law.

Even in the 11 states where medical marijuana is legal under state law, patients may have their assets seized, their medical marijuana destroyed, face massive fines and be imprisoned by federal courts. Federal prosecutors and judges often bar juries from hearing testimony about patients' medical need for marijuana and instead present these patients as run-of-the-mill drug users.

Here's a video of the Asylum Street Spankers that brilliantly illustrates the insanity of this nation's War on Drugs.

Lauri in York

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Lies and the lying liars who tell them

It's easy to get distracted these days by campaign news and the plight of the economy. But last night the Senate started debate on the future of FISA, the power to conduct surveillance without a warrant, and extending amnesty to telecom companies that broke the law. (Funny how some folks can get so riled up over what they call "amnesty" for brown people, but you don't hear a peep from them over true amnesty for mega corporations. What part of illegal don't they understand?)

Daily Kos has been all over the issue with posts here, here, here, here, and here. And national ACLU posted the "Greatest Unsung Hits of the FISA Debate". Here's a sample of the Daily Kos coverage.
Let's look at the lies that the Bush administration is using to manipulate Congress into voting for another ill-conceived and shameful policy.

There was, of course, the initial lie. That domestic spying was limited to "people with known links to al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations." Then we learned the truth: that the net cast was much wider, covering millions of American phone calls. Then there was the lie that the FISA wasn't flexible enough. The truth, of course, was that spying could take place without a warrant for 72 hours. And then there was the lie that, gosh, darn, there was just too much paperwork to fill out with each FISA application. Even though the truth was that Bush administration was able to fill out over 113 of those applications since 9/11 (the total applications in the FISA court's 23 year history? 46.) Then there was the lie that the government could have prevented the 9/11 attacks had it not had to ask the FISA court for a wiretap. But the truth was that the failure to tap Moussaoui was a result of a clumsy FBI, and not a paralyzed DOJ. Then there was the lie that this domestic spying program was necessary in the wake of 9/11, but the truth is that the Bush administration approached the telecoms as early as February 21, 2001.

The most repulsive lie, however, is that telecoms who aided the administration in turning this nation's massive spying apparatus on its own citizens were just "doing their patriotic duty."

National's action "FISA Flood" is available here.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Roe v. Wade: Celebrating 35 Years and Counting…

Today we honor the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, but we hope that the commemoration continues throughout the year. The Duvall Project will take its show on the road today as we travel to Muhlenberg College to celebrate.

Now, some antis and even advocates might find it twisted to use the term “celebrate” when referring to the anniversary of legalizing abortions. However, it is only fitting to utilize such ecstatic verbiage as this anniversary marks “not only 35 years of reproductive freedom, but 35 years of impressive gains in the fight for women’s equality.”

All across the United States today, protestors will be getting their boxers and panties in an uproar talking about the need to “stop the baby-killing.” Meanwhile, abortion rates are at their lowest since 1976. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the total number of abortions among women ages 15 to 44 declined from 1.3 million in 2000 to 1.2 million in 2005, an 8 percent drop that continued a trend that began in 1990, when the number of abortions peaked at more than 1.6 million, the survey found. The last time the number of abortions was that low was 1976, when slightly fewer than 1.2 million abortions were performed.

All we can do is speculate as to why the rates have declined, but I would like to point out that the “sharp fall came despite a comparatively tiny decline in the number of abortion providers.” While researchers at Guttmacher cannot identify the causes, the pro-choice community would like to contribute the change to the following factors: the widespread use of RU-486 (the abortion pill), the availability of emergency contraception over-the-counter, increasing use of comprehensive sexuality education programs in public schools, and an increasing number of young women and men using contraception to prevent pregnancy.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, the pregnancy rate among U.S. women aged 15–19 has declined steadily from 117 pregnancies per 1,000 women in 1990 to 75 per 1,000 women in 2002. While antis may naively attribute this triumph to widespread abstinence among teenagers, Guttmacher researchers found that only 14% of the decline in teen pregnancy between 1995 and 2002 was due to teens’ delaying sex or having sex less often, while 86% was due to an increase in sexually experienced teens’ contraceptive use.

While this might sound super, we still have a lot of work to do. Despite the decline in teenage pregnancies, the United States continues to have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world. We also have an access problem: While abortion may be legal it is out of reach for most as the majority of women aged 15 to 44, live in the 87 percent of U.S. counties without an abortion provider. Finally, it may come as no surprise to most that we are the only nation in the world that uses federal monies for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.

In light of both our triumphs and our challenges, we celebrate the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and vow to not take for granted this immensely important court decision. While we have come so far, we must not forget what life was like before Roe v. Wade, and to be sure to make the connection between gender equality and reproductive rights. In celebrating, we must remember why this decision is important and how we can carry on in the fight towards reproductive freedom.

Stephanie, Duvall Project

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Let's hear it for our homeboy

Tom Ridge, the first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, makes it clear - waterboarding is torture. On Friday, the former soldier told members of the American Bar Association at a homeland security conference that there is no doubt in his mind.

In an interview with the Associated Press, he said
One of America's greatest strengths is the soft power of our value system and how we treat prisoners of war, and we don't torture. And I believe, unlike others in the administration, that waterboarding was, is — and will always be — torture. That's a simple statement.

Ed Brayton over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars offers some interesting insight into Ridge's use of the phrase "soft power."

In 2005, Ridge quit the homeland security job created in the wake of Sept. 11. His remarks drew a clear line between his position and those of the current administration. On Thursday, the current Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, refused to say what he thinks of the interrogation technique.

Lauri in York

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Friday, January 18, 2008

This just in: First Amendment still applies to PA farmers

Here's an item that may or may not have caught your attention. It didn't seem to get all that much press outside of the agricultural community, despite the significant impact it would have had on dairy farmers' free speech rights.

In October, Dept. of Agriculture Sec. Dennis Wolff announced that Pennsylvania dairy farmers who do not inject their cows with artificial growth hormones, often referred to as rBST, would no longer be able to point out that fact to their customers on their product labels. (The synthetic hormones are said to boost milk production by about 10 percent, and were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1994. They are banned in Canada and Europe.)

Referred to as "absence labeling," Pennsylvania was the first state in the country to ban the practice. In his most sincerely paternalistic way, Wolff argued that there's no difference between milk from cows injected with rBST and those that aren't, so all those fancy big words just confuse customers.

See, Wolff explained, he's just looking out for you and me. He doesn't want us moms trying to choose milk for our children to get all muddle-headed with choices in the grocery aisles.

Following outcry from small farmers and consumer rights' activists, yesterday, Gov. Ed Rendell's office announced that the Dept. of Agriculture was revoking its proposed ban, amid the creation of new labeling standards.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has the update. It's not exactly a victory for free-speech rights, since this should have never been an issue in the first place.

The article says
Though labels are once again permitted to mention that hormones were not used, the standards require a disclaimer stating there is no difference in milk from cows injected with hormones and milk from cows that are not injected. Such disclaimers already are printed on many milk cartons.

Most scientists agree that it is almost impossible to detect the artificial hormone in milk. But there are other related issues that concern customers. Users of rBST are warned that the drug increases incidents of mastitis. Cows with mastitis must be treated with antibiotics. And here's a nice tidbit, mastitis also increases the amount of puss in your milk. (Don't know about you, but that fact alone is reason enough for me to support rBST-free labels.)

One doesn't have to go back very far to find Monsanto's tentacles intertwined in the process. The agri-business chemical giant and maker of Agent Orange is also the maker of rBST, marketed under the name Posilac.
For the past year, Monsanto has been lobbying state farming organizations to support labeling bans. And for good reason, according to this absolutely terrific report by Susan Erem for the Voice of Central Pennsylvania, Monsanto earns $64,000 per day just in Pennsylvania solely from the sale of Posilac.

The article is long, but it's the best comprehensive account of the issue that I've seen written anywhere. If you're interested in this issue, I encourage you to read it.

Pennsylvania is the fourth largest state producer of milk in the country. But the fight isn't yet over. Monsanto has been bullying organic dairy farmers for years over the labeling issue. It appealed its case to the FDA, but was rejected. Other states, such as Ohio, New Jersey and Michigan, are now mulling over similar bans.

Quite simply, as long as the claims are not fraudulent, farmers who reject using rBST should be free to say what they want on their labels. And here's an idea: Farmers who proudly use rBST are free to point out that fact on their labels too. That way, rather than allowing government to silence discourse, they can simply battle it out in the free market.

Lauri in York


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Sameh Khouzam is free

Sameh Khouzam, an Egyptian persecuted and tortured in his homeland for his religious beliefs, was freed yesterday after seven months in York County Prison. The York Dispatch has coverage, including photos of his homecoming.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Sameh Khouzam free tomorrow?

We just found out that the Third Circuit Court of Appeals denied the government's request for a stay of the release of Sameh Khouzam. Unless the government tries any other legal maneuvering, Sameh will walk out of York County Prison tomorrow a free man with protection from the Convention Against Torture.

There was quite a bit of media coverage, both national and in PA, on the decision last week. The best story I saw was in the New York Times, which included insight from academics on how this case will affect future cases.
Philip G. Schrag, a professor of law at Georgetown University and an expert on asylum issues, said the ruling was significant.

"The importance of this case," he said, "lies in its rejection of the Bush administration's claim that secret diplomatic assurances by a foreign government that it will not torture a person preclude judicial review."

The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Mr. Khouzam, echoed that view. And Marc D. Falkoff, assistant professor of law at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb and counsel for 16 Yemenis held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, said the ruling could have sweeping implications for those detained at Guantánamo.

"It's tremendously important," Mr. Falkoff said. "It's not a binding precedent outside the jurisdiction of the Third Circuit but the ruling has persuasive authority in any federal court and, without a doubt, it will be brought to the attention of any federal judge who has a case pending where a detainee or prisoner is challenging the government's right to transfer him to a country where he might be tortured."

Andy in Harrisburg

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Pennsylvania should follow in New Jersey's footsteps

Anyone still seeking a definitive blow-by-blow list of reasons to understand why Pennsylvania's death penalty must be overturned, read yesterday's editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The piece urges Pennsylvania to follow the lead of our enlightened brethren in New Jersey, who abolished the death penalty last year.

The editorial is about Nick Yarris, who spent 22 years on death row in Pennsylvania for the rape and murder of a Delaware County woman. Yarris would have died in prison if not for a DNA test that showed he wasn't the rapist or killer.

The editorial outlines the flaws with the death penalty and the judicial system that carries it out. But it saves its most important point for the end.
...there are countless people rotting in prisons across the country who are innocent but can't mount a credible claim because the evidence no longer exists.

DNA testing has been around only since 1988. The test helps in only a tiny fraction of crimes - mainly those involving rape - where DNA evidence exists.

Those wrongly convicted of a robbery or a shooting where there isn't DNA have a slim-to-none chance of overturning the verdict.

A review of scores of cases where a person was found to be wrongly convicted shows that the leading cause by far is eyewitness misidentification.

False confessions, government misconduct, lying snitches, and poor legal representation can all lead to a wrongful conviction.

All of those factors appear to have played a role in Yarris' case. Getting his verdict overturned was an uphill battle akin to winning the Powerball.

At one point, after contracting hepatitis C in prison and wanting to avoid dying from the painful disease, Yarris asked a judge to expedite his execution.

But after spending more than 8,000 days behind bars, Yarris narrowly escaped having the governor of Pennsylvania sign a death warrant for a crime it now appears he didn't commit.

That alone is enough to end the death penalty.

Lauri in York

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Friday, January 11, 2008

The prison at Guantanamo Bay: Our national disgrace

Maybe I haven't yet had enough coffee this morning. Maybe I'm just tired. But as I'm reading the newspapers today, I'm feeling ... a bit emotional. I feel as if I might...get a little misty. Not in a blubbery sort of way. No woman should ever do that! But I feel as if I might shed a few tears.

Six years ago today, the first shackled prisoners captured on the fields of Afghanistan were shuffled to Guantanamo. ACLU executive director Anthony Romero has some powerful words on the subject in today's
Make no mistake: There were, and are, innocent people imprisoned at Guantánamo. Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, who was Guantánamo's commander for several years, candidly acknowledged in the Wall Street Journal: "Sometimes, we just didn't get the right folks." And we now know that only a small percentage of the many hundreds of men and boys who have been held at Guantánamo were captured on a battlefield fighting against Americans; far more were sold into captivity by tribal warlords for substantial bounties.

But the appalling fact that innocent men have been imprisoned and abused at Guantánamo is not the only reason why its closure is of such urgent importance. The most profound and enduring stain of Guantánamo is its corrosive effect on America's reputation and standing, and on respect for the rule of law worldwide.

Now, I know I can't cry without coming across as either a weak and ineffective writer or a cold calculated ice queen merely using the topic of tears as a writing device to segue into different topics.

But if Gitmo's ongoing human rights' atrocity isn't moving enough, perhaps you men can weep in frustration at this article in today's Washington Post. (Us women will just stuff down our emotions by eating cookies.)

As you know, our government believes it is of vital importance to this nation's safety to turn our telecommunications industry into a vast, and outside the law, spy agency. But what apparently the government finds less vital to the war on terror is paying its phone bills on time. So the companies sometimes have to cut off these vital wire taps.

A report by the Justice Department Inspector General found that "late payments have resulted in telecommunications carriers actually disconnecting phone lines established to deliver surveillance results to the FBI, resulting in lost evidence."

Lauri in York

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

"Freedom from torture is a fundamental right"

Update II

This is one of those days that reminds me why I work for the American Civil Liberties Union.

In a rebuke of an overreaching executive branch, Judge Thomas Vanaskie of the federal Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled that Sameh Khouzam has "a fundamental right" to be free of torture and that Sameh must be released immediately from York County Prison. In short, Sameh escaped religious persecution and torture in his home country of Egypt and, after years in U.S. jails, won protection under the Convention Against Torture, only to be detained in May and threatened with deportation. The Bush Administration claimed it had "diplomatic assurances" from the Egyptian government that Sameh would not be tortured.

We'll soon have an official statement. For more information on the case, visit our website.

So much for my plan to post on the oral arguments in the voter ID and lethal injection cases.

Update, 6:10pm EST: Our press release is available here, and the judge's decision is available here (PDF).

Update, 6:20pm, EST: Judge Vanaskie has granted the government's request for a five day stay of Sameh's release so that DHS can appeal the release decision to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. The government is also appealing the entire ruling. Sameh won't be released today. Let's hope he sees freedom next week.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Capital punishment: Walking the longest walk

The death penalty is all over the place this week. Yesterday SCOTUS heard oral arguments in a Kentucky case (two cases, actually) in which the petitioners argue that the three-drug cocktail used for lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment. I'm going to get into this a bit more on Thursday. (I know, I know, you're on the edge of your seat waiting for that.)

Meanwhile, locally, Allentown Morning Call columnist Paul Carpenter has been all over the map this week with two columns that address crime and the ultimate punishment.

On Sunday, Carpenter argued that because PA's three strikes law could sentence someone who steals cookies to life without parole, then first degree homicide has to be something harsher than LWOP. Enter stage left the death penalty.
(Death penalty opponents) say life in prison is a more appropriate penalty. This is at a time when some nonviolent or minor crimes carry, in essence, that same penalty. Homeless hobo Kevin Weber got up to life for stealing chocolate chip cookies, under the provisions of California's crazy 1994 ''three-strikes'' law, which served as the model for Pennsylvania's three-strikes law a year later.

We tell the Gary Heidniks of our state's post-1999 society that sadistic and lethal crimes have about the same sanctions as cookie theft or having pot.

No wonder they run amok.

In his zeal for death, Carpenter completely brushes aside the absurdity of sending a homeless man to prison for life for stealing cookies. When it comes to crime and punishment, common sense is too often tossed out the window.

By 2012, Pennsylvania will build three new state prisons at a cost of $200-$300 million each and $50 million annually to maintain. According to one state senator, the Department of Corrections estimates we will need to build a prison per year for the foreseeable future to keep up with the increase in the state prison population. Meanwhile, we're sending a homeless man to prison for life for stealing cookies. This is madness.

Two days later, Carpenter returned to acknowledge misinformation in his Jan 6 column. We do not sentence 3200 people per year nationwide to death. That's the total nationwide death row population. In fact, last year 110 people were sentenced to death, the lowest total since SCOTUS reinstated the DP in 1976.

Meanwhile, at Huffington Post, John Holdridge and Cassandra Stubbs of the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project deftly swept aside the folly of the argument that capital punishment is a deterrent to homicide.
Imagine the moments leading up to a murder. Are we to believe a person about to commit a homicide would consider whether or not his state has a death penalty as opposed to just life imprisonment without the possibility of release? Common sense suggests that lucid, rational calculations about capital punishment statutes are not among the things that would cross the mind of a would-be murderer.

But the best piece I've seen this week is in Time magazine. David von Drehle has Death Penalty Walking:
In a perfect world, perhaps, the government wouldn't wait 30 years and several hundred executions to determine whether an execution method makes sense. But the world of capital punishment has never been that sort of place. This weighty moral issue, expressive of some of our society's deeply held values, involves a lot of winging it. In 1990, for instance, a sponge used in the headpiece of Florida's electric chair wore out. There's no factory or parts catalog for execution devices, so the prison sent a guy to pick up a sponge at the store. Problem was, he bought a synthetic sponge instead of a genuine sea sponge, and when Jesse Tafero was strapped in, his head caught fire. Florida officials diagnosed the problem afterward by testing a similar sponge in a toaster.

In comparison, lethal injection sounds more scientific--almost therapeutic--but its history is as improvised as that supermarket sponge. In 1977 an Oklahoma lawmaker sketched the protocol on a notepad with the help of a medical examiner. More research has gone into the proper way to brush your teeth. But the idea caught on, and now, years later, more than half the states have adopted some version of the Oklahoma cocktail. Judges in courts across the country are scratching their head over the odd concoction, and the Supreme Court has effectively halted all executions to untangle a mess of belated questions: How much risk of torture is too much? How many safeguards are necessary? What makes a punishment cruel and unusual?

Decades of well-intentioned brainstorms like this one--legal, medical, procedural, political--have accumulated into one thoroughly screwed-up system. Any other government program that delivered 3% of what it promised--while costing millions of dollars more than the alternative--would be a scandal, but the death penalty is different. In its ambiguity, complexity and excess, the system expresses a lot about who we are as a nation. We're of mixed minds, and most of us would rather not spend a lot of time thinking about killing. A majority of Americans support the idea of capital punishment--although fewer are for it if given a choice of life without parole. At the same time, a substantial number in a recent poll said they could not serve on a death-penalty jury.

Andy in Harrisburg


Monday, January 07, 2008

Revise the Constitution? Check. Revise History? Check.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

There was an interesting post on Daily Kos last week about the little noticed House Resolution 888, introduced last month by Congressman Randy Forbes (R-VA).

The resolution seeks to affirm "the rich spiritual and religious history of our Nation's founding and subsequent history and expressing support for designation of the first week in May as 'American Religious History Week' for the appreciation of and education on America's history of religious faith."

Chris Rodda, the Senior Research Director for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and the author of Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History, writes:
While the recent House of Representatives 'Christmas resolution' was being covered and discussed ad nauseum on countless websites, blogs, and elsewhere, another far more heinous resolution was introduced, one which, unbelievably, does not appear to have been noticed by anyone...

Rodda continues:
The resolution, which purports to promote 'education on America's history of religious faith,' is packed with the same American history lies found on the Christian nationalist websites, and in the books of pseudo-historians like David Barton. It lists a total of seventy-five "Whereas's," leading up to four resolves, the third of which is particularly disturbing -- that the U.S. House of Representatives 'rejects, in the strongest possible terms, any effort to remove, obscure, or purposely omit such history from our Nation's public buildings and educational resources,' a travesty of the highest magnitude, considering that most of the 'history' this resolve aims to promote in our public buildings and schools IS NOT REAL!

But you don't have to take Rodda's word. Read the whole scary resolution for yourself.

Lauri in York

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Friday, January 04, 2008

A year to go....

I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm basking in a warm glow of hopefulness today. The Pennsylvania primaries remain a long way off - eons in campaign time - but no matter who you support, last night's Iowa caucus served as a reminder that George Bush won't be president forever. (Unless of course you're like some paranoid individuals, who believe that we are one "state of emergency" away from the suspension of elections. But really, what's to be paranoid about?)

So as Harvey Keitel said in Pulp Fiction, "Let's not go sucking ..." OK, you remember the line. And it ain't over yet.

Dan Froomkin reports in the Washington Post on President Bush's top priority for 2008. (Before you read any further, close your eyes and try to guess what that is.) Yup, you got it: "Permanent expansion of government spy powers, including retroactive immunity for the telecom companies that assisted in warrantless surveillance."

For a lame duck president, Bush certainly has lofty goals. As Froomkin says
In short, it's a historic battle over the future of the country as a surveillance state.

There are those who question the risk inherent in the Executive Branch's mission of expansion of powers and its ability to operate outside constitutionally established checks and balances. Those individuals should take a look at what the destroyed CIA interrogation tapes, an issue only recently revealed, meant to the 9/11 commission and the war on terrorism.

In a powerfully worded New York Times op-ed piece, the 9/11 commission's chairman and vice chairman on Wednesday blasted the White House and the CIA for hindering their investigation.

As Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton wrote
Our role was to investigate the history and evolution of Al Qaeda and the 9/11 plot. Beginning in June 2003, we requested all reports of intelligence information on these broad topics that had been gleaned from the interrogations of 118 named individuals, including both Abu Zubaydah and Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri, two senior Qaeda operatives, portions of whose interrogations were apparently recorded and then destroyed.

The C.I.A. gave us many reports summarizing information gained in the interrogations. But the reports raised almost as many questions as they answered. Agency officials assured us that, if we posed specific questions, they would do all they could to answer them.

The op-ed further said that White House counsel rejected their attempts to directly interview detainees and never mentioned that videotapes existed.
As a legal matter, it is not up to us to examine the C.I.A.'s failure to disclose the existence of these tapes. That is for others. What we do know is that government officials decided not to inform a lawfully constituted body, created by Congress and the president, to investigate one the greatest tragedies to confront this country. We call that obstruction.

Lauri in York

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

While most of MSM snoozes, Boston Globe hits a home run

Tonight the first votes of the 2008 presidential election will be cast as Iowans caucus, minus disenfranchised members of the military, second-shift workers, and parents who can't find a babysitter. While most of the mainstream media focuses on the horse race angle of the election- I watched Hardball last night and the only issue I can recall being discussed was Mike Huckabee's bizarre claim that the way to respond to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto is to build a fence on the Mexican border- two weeks ago The Boston Globe published the results of a survey on executive power that the paper sent to all of the presidential candidates. (Hat tip Arianna Huffington. Glenn Greenwald also wrote extensively about the survey.) The results showed that while the ACLU has taken on the phrase "One more year, No more damage," there could still be great damage to our system of checks-and-balances if the wrong candidate is elected.

Democrats Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, and Christopher Dodd and Republicans John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Ron Paul all responded to the questions. Rudy Giuliani wrote a general response but did not answer the questions.

Because the ACLU is non-partisan, you won't see much commentary here. But the answers speak for themselves.

Issue: Warrantless Surveillance
Obama: The Supreme Court has never held that the president has such powers. As president, I will follow existing law, and when it comes to U.S. citizens and residents, I will only authorize surveillance for national security purposes consistent with FISA and other federal statutes.

Clinton: No. The President is not above the law.

Edwards: I strongly oppose George Bush's illegal spying on American citizens. Surveillance that takes place within the United States should be performed with judicial oversight, as the law provides.

Richardson: No.

Dodd: Absolutely not – I have been a very vocal and early opponent of this Administration's warrantless wiretapping program and efforts to provide retroactive immunity for the companies who participated. The choice between national security and civil liberties is a false choice. Indeed, our adherence to the rule of law enhances our international standing and leverage, and accordingly enhances our national security. I've made it clear that I will return from Iowa and filibuster any bill that makes it onto the Senate floor including retroactive immunity language.

Biden: No. The President is not above the law, he is bound by valid acts of Congress. Our laws state clearly that no one can wiretap Americans without a warrant. By willfully authorizing warrantless wiretaps of Americans, the President violated the law, and he should be held accountable.

McCain: There are some areas where the statutes don't apply, such as in the surveillance of overseas communications. Where they do apply, however, I think that presidents have the obligation to obey and enforce laws that are passed by Congress and signed into law by the president, no matter what the situation is. ... I don't think the president has the right to disobey any law.

Romney: Intelligence and surveillance have proven to be some of the most effective national security tools we have to protect our nation. Our most basic civil liberty is the right to be kept alive and the President should not hesitate to use every legal tool at his disposal to keep America safe.

Paul: Absolutely not.

Issue: Detaining U.S. citizens without charge as unlawful enemy combatants
Obama: No. I reject the Bush Administration's claim that the President has plenary authority under the Constitution to detain U.S. citizens without charges as unlawful enemy combatants.

Clinton: No.

Edwards: George Bush has abused our constitutional traditions in his detention policies and has created a national embarrassment at Guantanamo Bay. Judicial review ought to be restored to the process of detentions. As president, I will not detain U.S. citizens as enemy combatants without charges, and I will close Guantanamo Bay on my first day in office.

Richardson: No.

Dodd: No.

Biden: No. The Supreme Court resolved this issue in a case called "Hamdi" in 2004. An American citizen held as an enemy combatant has a constitutional right to due process to determine whether his detention is legal and is adequately based on fact.

McCain: The Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that, under the Congressional authorization of the use of force, the U.S. can hold even American citizens under the law of war if they are enemy combatants. But the Court also said that U.S. citizens must have due process to challenge their detention. And I think that is very important when it comes to American citizens.

Romney: All US citizens are entitled to due process, including at least some type of habeas corpus relief regardless whether they are designated unlawful enemy combatants or not.

Paul: No.

Issue: Torture- Can the President use an interrogation technique prohibited by Congress?
Obama: No. The President is not above the law, and the Commander-in-Chief power does not entitle him to use techniques that Congress has specifically banned as torture. We must send a message to the world that America is a nation of laws, and a nation that stands against torture. As President I will abide by statutory prohibitions, and have the Army Field Manual govern interrogation techniques for all United States Government personnel and contractors.

Clinton: No.

Edwards: It is hard to believe that the president and his supporters are engaged in a debate about how much torture we should have. The United States should never torture, for several reasons: because it is not the American way, because it undermines our moral authority in the world, because it places our troops at risk, and because it does not work. I strongly oppose George Bush's possible veto of the Congressional bill prohibiting torture.

Richardson: No.

Dodd: No, and I was absolutely shocked that Attorney General Mukasey, in his testimony before the Judiciary Committee, said that in certain circumstances could thwart the law. This, and his declaration that he could not say whether or not waterboarding was in fact torture, led me to believe that he would not be the kind of nominee I could support.

Biden: No. The President must comply with all valid acts of Congress. That’s why I’ve introduced the National Security with Justice Act, unequivocally banning waterboarding and other forms of torture.

McCain: No. Article I, Section 8 gives Congress that power. Unless the president chooses to willfully violate the law and suffer the consequences, he must obey the law.

Romney: A President should decline to reveal the method and duration of interrogation techniques to be used against high value terrorists who are likely to have counter-interrogation training. This discretion should extend to declining to provide an opinion as to whether Congress may validly limit his power as to the use of a particular technique, especially given Congress’s current plans to try to do exactly that.

Paul: No.

Issue: Habeas Corpus- Agree or disagree with Alberto Gonzales that nothing in the Constitution gives a right to habeas corpus?
Obama: Disagree strongly.

Clinton: I disagree with Attorney General Gonzales. I have long believed that the right to habeas corpus offers fundamental protection against unchecked government power. It is a constitutionally guaranteed right. The Supreme Court should reaffirm this principle in the Boumediene case now pending and correct the mistake Congress made when it attempted to rescind habeas corpus through the Military Commissions Act.

Edwards: I disagree.

Richardson: This is clearly wrong. The Framers, in their declaration that habeas may be suspended only in cases of rebellion or invasion, made clear that the Constitution presumes the existence of the common law right to habeas corpus. Any other interpretation is sophistry.

Dodd: I Disagree. Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution confers the fundamental right of habeas irrespective of Congressional actions to statutorily expand or limit the federal role relative to the states.

Biden: I disagree categorically with Mr. Gonzales. The Constitution guarantees the right of habeas corpus unless in the case of rebellion or invasion it is suspended. My National Security with Justice Act reinforces this Constitutional right by extending by statute meaningful habeas review for all Guantanamo detainees.

McCain: On that one, the Supreme Court just heard oral arguments in the Boumedienne case and it is expected to rule early next year on that question. So I will be interested in seeing how the Court rules.

Romney: The availability and limitation of habeas corpus is governed by current federal statutory law and the Suspension Clause of the US Constitution, Article I, § 9, cl. 2.

Paul: I strongly disagree with him because I think it was absurd. If we can’t deny habeas corpus it infers that you have habeas corpus. So I would strongly disagree with his whole interpretation of habeas corpus. ... [As for whether that extends to non US citizens in US custody overseas]. I think that might depend upon the circumstances of declared war, and what the circumstances might be. ... [In the case of Guantanamo detainees,] I would think then that we should, under those circumstances, follow the principles of habeas corpus.

The survey contained a total of 12 questions with other topics covered including international human rights treaties, the power of Congress to cap troop deployments, and how the candidates feel about other candidates who did not answer the questions. (Ron Paul had the best answer to that last one- "what are they trying to hide? Why are they embarrassed to answer the questions?") Fascinating stuff.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Bush signs bill bolstering Freedom of Information Act

And in other news, "Seven-Year-Old Eats Broccoli".

Yes, on Monday, President Bush quietly signed a bill to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act. The law now requires documents to be released unless to do so would cause harm, builds greater expediency to the process, and a variety of other things to make the whole process easier and more user-friendly.

Smintheus over at Daily Kos has more.

Now we'll all wait for the Boston Globe story next week about Bush's signing statement and his intent to completely ignore the law.

Andy in Harrisburg

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